VA’s collective bargaining proposals spark concern from nearly 130 lawmakers

This story has been updated to include additional information and statements from the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

More than 125 lawmakers are urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to rethink its approach to collective bargaining with the American Federation of Government Employees.

A series of new bargaining proposals, which VA released to both AFGE and the public last month, has sparked concern among a bipartisan group of 128 House members.

If enacted, VA’s proposals would cut official time, ban AFGE’s use of departmental office space and government supplies and end labor management working groups. VA’s proposals would also eliminate more than two dozen articles of the department’s existing contract with AFGE, meaning the union can’t bargain over telework, relocations, promotions and other topics.

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“We believe the VA may be acting to precipitate a breakdown in negotiations by insisting on proposals that are similar to specific provisions of [Trump’s May 2018] executive orders,” lawmakers wrote in a June 5 letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Such proposals make it appear that the VA is seeking to circumvent the order of the U.S. District Court that enjoined many provisions of the executive orders.”

Reps. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) and Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) were lead signatories for the letter. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) were among the Republican members who signed the letter.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the department appreciates the members’ views and will respond to them.

“Whether through its condemnation of the MISSION Act or its efforts to repeal the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, AFGE has consistently fought for the status quo and opposed attempts to make VA work better for veterans and their families,” he said in a statement to Federal News Network. “Now AFGE is taking the same approach with its refusal to accept commonsense improvements to its collective bargaining agreement.”

Some of VA’s proposals resemble provisions in President Donald Trump’s three workforce executive orders, which he signed back in May 2018 and a federal district court invalidated later last August. The Trump administration is appealing the court’s decision.

The department, for example, proposed a limit of no more than 10,000 hours per year of official time for the VA bargaining unit, which comprises some 250,000 members.

AFGE, however, has already experienced some limits on official time. The department back in November eliminated official time for some 104,000 Title 38 employees, many of whom are physicians, dentists, nurses, physician assistants and others.

In addition, VA’s proposals set a shorter timeline for employees to improve performance, another provision included in Trump’s executive orders.

VA, of course, isn’t the only major agency to suggest bargaining proposals that resemble provisions in the President’s workforce executive orders. The Department of Health and Human Services, after receiving a decision from the Federal Service Impasses Panel, is implementing new bargaining articles that resemble, in part, pieces of the President’s EOs. The National Treasury Employees Union has refused to recognize the panel’s decision as a new, comprehensive collective bargaining agreement.

The Social Security Administration recently received a similar decision from the impasses panel.

In announcing them to the public, Wilkie said VA’s bargaining proposals represented a “reset” in the department’s approach to labor-management relations and were symptoms of the union’s “reluctance to challenge the status quo.”

Yet lawmakers said they were concerned the department’s bargaining proposals would limit labor protections Congress itself first envisioned when it passed the Civil Service Reform Act and Federal Service Labor-Management Relations statute into law in 1978.

“As such, we strongly encourage the VA to bargain with AFGE in good faith, in full accordance with the established ground rules and with the objective of improving care for our veterans,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unions representing VA workers help improve the care veterans receive and the services they rely on by creating an efficient working environment.”

Negotiations between VA and AFGE began late last month and are expected to continue to December, the union has said.

Arbitrator directs VA to remove ‘accountability’ data

After an AFGE-filed grievance, an independent arbitrator recently instructed VA to remove a list of disciplinary actions the department had taken against its employees from its public-facing website.

VA began to publish a list of disciplinary actions on its website back in July 2017. Weekly adverse action reports didn’t include specific names but detailed an employee’s general position, geographic region and the date of the action taken by the VA.

Former VA Secretary David Shulkin had touted the publication of this data as a move to make personnel actions transparent “for all to see.”

Yet the arbitrator said the department had violated both the Privacy Act and its collective bargaining agreement with AFGE in publishing this data.

“This ruling is an affront to government transparency and VA is reworking the reports to be able to convey information to enhance transparency to the greatest extent without violating the arbitrator’s order,” Cashour said of the arbitrator’s decision.

The reports are gone from VA’s website. A link that once led to the department’s adverse action reports now lands at a page for VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP).

Cashour said VA is also refreshing the OAWP website. Once complete, the updated page will include the revised versions of the department’s adverse action reports.

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